Kuriyan, Priya, Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Bartscht, and Nicole Marie Burton, editors. Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!. Ad Astra Comix, 2015.
Society has a gatekeeping problem: anyone who is not a cis, white, straight, able-bodied male must fight to have their stories recorded and, even then, there is no guarantee those stories will be read. Comics in particular are deeply affected by this gatekeeping. A highly vocal and active subset of male readers frequently seek to retain their primacy within comics fandom, both between and beyond the panel. The centrality of white maleness that such fans emphasize comes at the expense of other fans who do not fit their mold. Any time a person or a group outside of this clique attempts to critique a particular work for being sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, Islamophobic, or otherwise, they frequently are met with harassing and toxic comments from such gatekeepers. In 2014, comics editor, researcher, and Comic Book Resources contributor Janelle Asselin published her criticisms of New Teen Titans #1, highlighting cover artist Kenneth Rocafort’s intensely sexual and extraordinarily impractical depiction of the teenaged Wonder Girl – specifically her large breasts. Asselin’s article was met with harassing, crude, sexist comments and the writer herself was subjected to death and rape threats. One such anonymous comment began, “Women in comics are the deviation, the invading body, the cancer. We are the cure, the norm, the natural order. All you are is a pair of halfway decent tits, a c*nt and a loud mouth.” The author closes their tirade by writing, “We won’t quit. We won’t stop attacking. We won’t give up. Ever” (Khouri, “Fake Geek Guys: A Message to Men About Sexual Harassment”). Asselin is far from the only female within the comics fandom to be subjected to such abuse.
Thankfully, many indie comics publishers have taken it upon themselves to create a safe space for those who are not part of “the cure, the norm, the natural order” — Ad Astra Comix among them. Ad Astra, whose slogan proclaims, “the panel is political,” is whole-heartedly dedicated to social justice issues, covering immigration, race relations, workers’ rights, indigenous rights, feminism, and gentrification, among many others. Their 2015 comic anthology, Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!, is all the more important for centering Indian women’s voices. Indeed, Drawing the Line is on the cutting edge of the Indian comics scene, joining Saraswati Nagpal’s Draupadi: The Fire-Born Princess among the scant handful of books written for Indian women, by Indian women. Successfully funded through Kickstarter in September 2015, Drawing the Line is raw and intimate, brimming with a rock and roll vibe reminiscent of Riot Grrrl and Girl Gems, two DIY feminist zines started by Molly Neuman and Alison Wolfe from the punk rock band Bratmobile in the 1990s. This intimacy creates a visceral link between the reader and the hopes, struggles, and triumphs of women from India. Such a link can be an important tool for promoting empathy, education, and activism, especially for those beyond India’s borders. However, the rawness that makes this link possible is also Drawing the Line’s biggest stumbling block: though powerful, the frenetic energy of both the individual comics and the anthology’s overall organization often disrupts the reader’s immersion in the text.
Drawing the Line goes beyond simply telling the reader about the authors’ experiences and instead uses sequential art to further reveal the nuances of their everyday reality. This, in turn, fosters a deeper sense of empathy that then motivates the reader to more deeply engage with their fight for recognition and equality. As such, Drawing the Line is an entirely necessary anthology, filling the space where artistry and activism meet. To this end, Harini Kannan’s “That’s Not Fair” is a strong opener. The comic literally gives a voice to the voiceless by depicting a female fetus who angrily protests India’s unjust cultural attitudes toward dark-skinned women (Figure 1). While the baby girl’s parents discuss the potentially high cost of her future wedding, she yells that she wants a fund for college. Later, as her mother rubs skin-lightening cream on her own belly in an effort to lighten her fetus’s skin, the baby indignantly cries out, “Ma!! Really?” (9). Finally, when the infant has had enough of society’s assumptions about dark-skinned girls, she loudly declares, “I’m coming out, BITCHES!” (10). Rather than passively letting her mother’s contractions evict her, she proclaims her power and presence with an enormous wail. Kannan’s central motif of the baby girl actively deciding to enter society and immediately voicing her dissent is all the more important given that adult women in India are so frequently infantilized and silenced, expected to rely on the men in their lives without any thought toward independence. It is clear that in the child’s opinion, and therefore the author’s, Indian women need to break free from the superficial constructs of a woman’s worth and autonomy based on her skin color, which stems not only from India’s patriarchal society, but also Britain’s imperialism. This sort of artistic activism, which highlights the very real problem of eurocentrism through a preference for light skin, is a powerful lightning rod for further revolutionary activity.
Diti Mistry’s “Mumbai Local” demonstrates the same revolutionary power as “That’s Not Fair” by illustrating the powerful sense of sorority within women-only circles. However, “Mumbai Local” also hints at the most pervasive problem of Drawing the Line: a distracting lack of polish due to the absence of a strong editorial voice. Mistry’s autobiographical story is a sweet glimpse into the inner sanctum of the “women only” car of the Mumbai local train. Even though Mistry spends most of her time quietly observing the bustle around her, other women in the car still rally around her to help evacuate a bug that suddenly invades Mistry’s clothing. When the bug is gone and the dust settles, an older woman generously gives Mistry some food to help her recover from the embarrassment of the incident. Had this story been restricted to a written narrative, there would not have been a problem. However, Mistry’s riotous visual style cramps and crowds the panels. Though this does give the reader an excellent sense of the life of Mumbai, the narrative becomes visually confused and hard to follow. Additionally, the sides of the pages have a distracting grey tone, as if Mistry used a cheap copier to reproduce her comic for the anthology, and the reader struggles to stay in Mistry’s world (Figure 2).
Drawing the Line’s uneven quality worsens with Reshu Singh’s “The Photo” and Soumya Menon’s “An Ideal Girl.” Singh’s visual style is heavy and fluid as if her comic was rendered with black and grey watercolors. This style works for emphasizing the protagonist, Bena’s, languor and frustration as she tries to negotiate a new path for herself outside of her potential arranged marriage. However, much like Mistry’s “Mumbai Local,” Singh’s style muddies and confuses the narrative: her small cursive is hard to read against the heavy black brushstrokes and lacks a clear sense of organization that further hinders the piece. Toward the end, the reader sees Bena thinking, almost daydreaming, which is conveyed through a river of doves in flight. This is meant to give the comic a pensive quality, but, the imagery is almost too dreamy and the narrative is lost (Figure 3) . The reader does understand that Bena is thinking about her ten-year-old self and her dream of being a superhero, but the sequence needs more panels and breaks to create a clearer structure and guide the eye. A more robust editor could have guided Singh to a more coherent visual form without impacting the integrity of her piece.
Soumya Menon’s piece, “An Ideal Girl,” suffers from the inverse of Singh’s “The Photo.” While it is clearly structured within a 12-panel format, the narrative is jumbled and incoherent. In the introduction, Menon states, “This graphic narrative is an attempt at turning things around. A between-the-panels exploration of some of these preset notions of the Ideal Girl. I wanted the Ideal Girl to tell her own story. One in which she is set free” (36). Indeed, Menon’s visual structure is the comic’s strongest suit. The first five and a half pages employ a rigid template of small, restrictive panels to explore the constraints Indian society places on its women. After being accepted into one of the country’s top universities, for instance, Ideal Girl is told that she must respect her family by deferring her opportunity so that her younger brother can attend university instead. Every page is a vignette, and every vignette shows Ideal Girl growing more and more pensive as she is repeatedly told “no.” Menon resolves this tension in the final page, which ends Ideal Girl’s story with a wide shot of the Ideal Girl using the bike she’s been given to ride to and from work, deciding to break free and cycling off into her newfound freedom.
That in and of itself is a powerful statement, yet its impact is weakened by the inconsistency of Ideal Girl’s and Ideal Boy’s narratives. Because it is initially unclear how each page relates to the other, it is difficult to piece the narrative into a coherent whole. Ideal Boy is presented as both Ideal Girl’s husband and brother, raising questions of who, exactly, these characters are meant to represent. Is Menon depicting singular, universal archetypes or the ways in which multiple people at multiple stages of their lives embody those archetypes? At no point does Menon make this clear. Again, a stronger editor could have helped Menon clarify her narrative structure, thereby creating a more impactful piece.
Drawing the Line’s need for a stronger editor is also apparent in the arrangement of the pieces. Deepani Seth’s “The Walk” is powerful in its simplicity: a woman takes a walk alone at night. For any woman, walking after dark harbors dangers of molestation, assault, and rape, rendering such an act profoundly dangerous. Seth’s heavy use of charcoal aims for a hushed, dusky world. However, the charcoal illustrations are not so much dusky as murky and hard to read. The black, grey, and white font forces the reader to strain to understand the words, further muddying the piece. Without any light to contrast the darkness, the reader gets lost and fatigued (Figure 4). Seth’s comic is followed by Ita Mehrotra’s “The Poet, Sharmila,” also rendered in charcoal. While Mehrotra’s piece is clearer and cleaner than Seth’s, the roughness of Mehrotra’s charcoal directly after the roughness of Seth’s charcoal only serves to fatigue the reader even more. While relatively strong on their own, side by side they jar against one another. This jarring effect could have been significantly lessend had a cleaner piece, like Menon’s “Ideal Girl,” been placed between them.
Yet, where some pieces in Drawing the Line fall short, Samidha Gunjal’s “Someday…” delivers, bringing Drawing the Line to a close on the most powerful note in the anthology. Gunjal’s style shares the rough, raw intimacy of the other pieces but without sacrificing visual clarity. The narrative itself is simple yet incredibly empowering: a woman walking through the street swiftly dispatches her catcallers by transforming into the terrible and beautiful Hindu goddess, Kali. At the end, Kali winks at the reader, coffee and cigarette in two of her many hands. The goddess’s image is warm and welcoming for any woman who has had to endure street harassment, encouraging them to find their strength and speak out against men who make them feel humiliated and small. As such, “Someday…” is the standard that the rest of the anthology should strive for and as such stands out as the most beautiful jewel in Drawing the Line’s crown.
Given the current state of women’s rights in India, Ad Astra’s Drawing the Line is a necessary work that provides Indian women a space to voice their struggles and joys. In the process, it gives outside readers a much needed opportunity to seek out and understand the complexities of this world. That the anthology exists in the male-dominated sphere of comics is all the more crucial, as it effectively carves an opening for female creators and readers alike to demand greater recognition and empathy in a medium not used to hearing their voices. Although the anthology is hampered by the sense of continuity and clarity that a clearer editorial eye may have provided, the comics within successfully communicate a stirring vision of the creators’ daily experience, allowing readers to enter and, for a brief time, inhabit, a specific version of India. In the space where activism and artistry overlap, Drawing the Line successfully finds its home.
Khouri, Andy. “Fake Geek Guys: A Message to Men About Sexual Harassment.” ComicsAlliance.com, April 16 2014.